Last night voters across the country tuned in to CNBC for what was supposed to be the third debate of the Republican Presidential Primary Election. Instead, voters were given a rarer treat: an open debate between Republican politicians and a mainstream media organization. The moderators of the debate, Carl Quintanilla, John Harwood, and Becky Quick decided to forgo the thin veneer of false objectivity usually employed by the media in favor of an outright adversarial bias.
The night started out normal enough, with the moderators asking a corny “interview” question: what is your biggest weakness? While this is clearly designed to give some type of insight into the candidates thought processes or qualifications, the question prompted predictably banal responses. John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul dodged entirely, preferring to use their limited time to promote their message (this turned out to be a smart move for Senator Paul in particular since he was given the least speaking time of any candidate.) Ted Cruz couldn’t decide among the three answers that apparently popped into his head; first he joked that he was ‘too agreeable’, next he gave an apparent attempt at a serious answer by saying he was ‘too passionate about the Constitution’, and finally he awkwardly stumbled through a poorly thought out analogy in which he told America that, while he’s not fun to have a beer with, he’d drive us home if we got drunk. The other terrible answers were rounded out with things like ‘being too optimistic’ or being too willing to ‘play by the rules.’ Basically, an interview question which doesn’t even work well for prospective accountants failed to get any meaningful responses from polished and professional politicians. Shocker, I know.
The debate stumbled on for a little while with everyone treating it as legitimate and mostly ignoring the confrontations of the moderators. Trump was asked if he’s running a “comic book version of a presidential campaign” and, while he told Harwood it wasn’t a very nice question, decided to respond with substance. Trump pointed to his tax plan, which would reduce rates and bring both jobs and capitol back from overseas. The “moderator” then decided to debate Trump, rather than questioning him, by claiming that economic growth and spending cuts couldn’t possibly make up for the lower tax rates. Becky Quick did the same with Ben Carson moments later. Carson defended himself well by saying spending reductions would make up for the $1.1 trillion dollar budget hole created by going to a 15% flat tax, even if he failed to be specific.
There was some substantive debate between the actual candidates as well, however. John Kasich, a moderate Republican known as the architect of the Clinton-era balanced budget, juxtaposed his ‘realistic’ plans with the ‘fantasy’ of Carson and Trump. He’s certainly right that neither Carson or Trump have put forth realistic plans with sufficient detail on how they would cut spending to balance the budget. Harwood was not satisfied with the policy debate, however, and tried to goad Kasich into attacking Trump and Carson personally by suggesting he call them “crazy.” It got worse. When Carly Fiorina suggested cutting the tax code to only three pages, Quintanilla asked her in an exasperated tone, “You want to go from 70,000 pages to three!?!?! Is that using really small type? ” As if the very idea of tax simplification itself was ridiculous. Fiorina adeptly put him in his place by explaining that three pages was about how much normal people can understand without hiring the armies of lawyers and accountants available to the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, the only candidate who has proposed a detailed plan to balance the current federal budget and wants to go to a low flat tax, Rand Paul, was left out of the discussion entirely. Senator Paul did not get his first question until almost an hour into the two hour debate.
Lets go quickly over the next few questions just to show a pattern:
- From Quintanilla: ‘Senator Rubio, aren’t you lazy and inexperienced and shouldn’t you resign for missing so many votes?’ [paraphrasing here but that was actually the gist]. This may have been the point where all the candidates realized that the moderators were not only not on their team, but actively out to get them. Rubio remained professional, pointing out the hypocrisy of the liberal press attacking his voting record but giving a pass to Democrats like Barack Obama and John Kerry.
- From Harwood: ‘Governor Bush, aren’t you out of touch with voters and shouldn’t you drop out because no one likes you?’ [again, paraphrasing]. Bush talked instead about offering “a compelling alternative that is based on hope and optimism and grounded in serious policy.”
- From Becky Quick: ‘Carly Fiorina, you were terrible at business so why should we think you’ll be good at politics?’ Fiorina instead successfully defended her business record, as she’s done in the past, and talked about the differences in accountability between CEOs and politicians.
The breaking point finally came when Quintanilla asked Ted Cruz [exact quote this time]: “Does your opposition to [the recent debt limit deal] show that you’re not the kind of problem-solver American voters want?” His response is so perfect it’s worth quoting the whole thing:
CRUZ: You know, let me say something at the outset. The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.
(APPLAUSE) This is not a cage match. And, you look at the questions — “Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain?” “Ben Carson, can you do math?” “John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?” “Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?” “Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?”
How about talking about the substantive issues the people care about?
The contrast with the Democratic debate, where every fawning question from the media was, “Which of you is more handsome and why?”
It was an excellent answer by any account, calling out CNBC on what was a blatantly combative and unprofessional interrogation of not only the candidates on stage but of the entire Republican philosophy. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or something else, everyone should be able to recognize how terrible the CNBC moderators were.
Don’t misunderstand when I say that this behavior was a “treat” for voters. I’m not joking.; it was. Voters were given what is perhaps the most high profile example yet of mainstream media bias against Republicans and in favor of the left of center status quo personified by Hilary Clinton. That same bias was on display when the media tried to tear down Bernie Sanders after the first Democratic debate.
After Cruz’s comments, the battle lines were drawn clearly in the sand and everyone now knows what they’re getting when the press talks to Republicans. Marco Rubio played on this theme later on when he referred to the mainstream media as the Democrat’s “ultimate SuperPac.”
So from that point on in the debate, the candidates were less deferential to the moderators. They spoke over their time or out of turn. And who can blame them? The moderators had lost all credibility as neutral referees and become combatants.
Thankfully, there was more substance after that point as well. Carly Fiorina railed on crony capitalism and explained succinctly how big government benefits the rich and powerful to the detriment of the poor. John Kasich argued in favor of dismantling corporate welfare like the Export Import bank, one of the few issues where he stands with the economic right. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz focused on monetary policy and the Federal Reserve: both argued that Fed policy is as responsible as anything else for growing income inequality and economic instability, and arguably the main cause. Paul and Cruz also agreed on the need to get rid of the payroll tax, which is where the middle class pays the most.
The final substantive discussion was around entitlement reform. Governor Mike Huckabee, more of a social than an economic conservative, argued in favor of basically leaving Social Security and Medicare exactly how they are. Donald Trump agreed, essentially saying that he would grow the economy enough to save the bankrupt and structural unsound entitlements. Senator Paul lead the charge on the opposition to the “it’ll magically fix itself” mantra by pointing out that without reforms, the programs won’t be there at all for those who need them. Paul was joined by Bush, Kasich, and Christie in defending structural reforms to preserve the programs.
So ultimately, despite the moderators best attempts to drag the discourse into the mud, voters got to see a lot of substantive interaction and policy debate. All the candidates looked good and they became more unified than they’d been in past debates, likely because they were faced with a common enemy. The irony is that CNBC’s moderators were so biased and unprofessional that their strategy seems to have backfired and made voters sympathetic to the plight of national Republicans. Heck, even other mainstream media outlets have criticized them. Who knows, maybe CNN just isn’t happy that CNBC confirmed for the whole country what many people already assumed: liberal media is out to destroy the Republican presidential candidates.